The suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz was “a tragedy,” Attorney General Eric Holder said on Wednesday. But he said Swartz never faced a realistic prospect of going to prison for three decades.
Swartz, who died by his own hand in January at the age of 26, might have been put in custody for several months for illegally gaining access to a subscription service and downloading a trove of academic papers from online database JSTOR via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology system.
Although in official terms the crimes Swartz was accused of carried punishment of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines, such draconian punishment was never going to be imposed in this instance, Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Before he was indicted in July 2011, Swartz was told by prosecutors that, if he pleaded guilty, he could expect three months in confinement, Holder said.
And even after an indictment was handed down, it was made clear to Swartz that he could opt to accept a sentence of four months, or perhaps six months, Holder said. “These offers were rejected,” Holder said.
Holder’s comments on the Swartz case were made in part during an exchange with Sen. John R. Cornyn (R-Texas), who wondered aloud if prosecutors in the case had been “trying to bully someone into pleading guilty to something,” a suggestion Holder said was just not true.
The United States Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, has come under fire from relatives and supporters of Swartz. They have asserted that the emotional pressure of contemplating decades in prison if he were convicted was just too much for the young man. But Ortiz has defended the conduct of the prosecutors who work for her as professional and appropriate (see Main Justice’s report).